Harnessing the Power of Muslim Philanthropy

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Muhi Khwaja

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Muhi Khwaja

Muslims in America

There are roughly 3.5 million Muslims in the United States and, as we celebrate and observe the tradition of Hajj this week ending in Eid ul Adha (August 11th this year), it’s important to recognize that history and Muslim contributions to social causes in this country. Islam in America is nothing new. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University demonstrates that Muslims reached the shores of America in 1178 CE. From the roughly one-third of slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere who were African Muslims to American converts like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to the current Muslim congress members (Reps. André Carson, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib), Muslims have been a part of this country’s make up for a long time. Today, as Muslims give back politically and socially, we also give back to our communities philanthropically.

Giving as a part of Islamic faith

Many Muslims abide by the third pillar of the faith, zakat, which means purity in Arabic. The act of giving zakat alms is a means of purifying one’s wealth and Muslims are obligated to give zakat if they have accumulated wealth equivalent to 3oz of gold throughout the year. In addition to giving zakat, many Muslims also give what is known as sadaqa, or general charity alms. The practice of taking from what you’ve earned and giving it to others who need it is a humbling practice. Zakat and sadaqa are mentioned over 80 times in the Qur’an, often times with prayer.

Despite the many barriers that minorities face, these communities have grit and are devoted to hard work. Today, minorities take advantage of educational and business options available in the United States and economic empowerment is improving the lifestyle experience from generation to generation. This can also lead to increased philanthropic and civic participation. A study by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding shows that Muslims who are more active in their mosques are more likely to vote. ISPU also recently released a report on American Muslim Philanthropy showcasing that Muslims are just as likely to give to non-religious causes and have a willingness to support domestic causes that solve hunger and poverty. Muslims give because of their religious duty but also because they have the capacity to help.

Most donations are given in the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The added benefit of increasing acts of good-will in Ramadan is incentivized by the blessings Muslims seek in reward. However, an increasing number of donations are also made during the week of Hajj, and before the end of the year in December as well.

Maximizing Impact

When Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Houston in 2017, like many in America, Muslim families came together to donate to the Houston Food Bank and the American Red Cross. When tragedies targeting religious communities in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Pittsburgh happened, the Muslim community stepped up to donate and help rebuild. Thousands of donors gave hundreds of thousands of dollars through multiple campaigns hosted on LaunchGood, an online Muslim crowdfunding platform.

To help Muslims streamline their zakat and sadaqa, the American Muslim Fund (AMF) was established in 2016 to help bring the best practices of Donor Advised Funds (DAF) in a grassroots, mainstream way to the Muslim community. A DAF is a giving vehicle that provides the donor with immediate tax benefits and allows them to support their charities of choice through grant recommendations on their own timetable. Using a DAF gives families the ability to name their fund, invest their charitable dollars, and pass on the tradition of giving to others generation to generation.

One of AMF’s principles is to make significant contributions to create impact. Since 2017, AMF has opened 50 DAFs and distributed over $1,000,000 to more than 115 nonprofits. AMF’s assets under management are under a humble $300,000 and as we continue to grow, we are identifying investment opportunities with the understanding that families will still make annual contributions.

Donors in the U.S. gave $427.71 billion in 2018. American Muslims may not be giving $4.3 billion as 1 percent of the population, but perhaps American Muslims can channel more of their philanthropy through DAFs to focus their impact. The way Muslims give zakat or sadaqa varies as some is given directly to individuals in need, as opposed to nonprofit organizations. Indiana University’s Center on Muslim Philanthropy and the American Muslim Fund hope to provide more insight into tracking this going forward. 

Creating Social Impact & Change

There are over 750 community foundations across the country, yet AMF is the first to focus on giving vehicles for the Muslim community. We help connect nonprofits with Muslim philanthropists to drive social change. AMF also provides an opportunity for the general public to support a cause that empowers the rights of the American Muslim community. In a time when minority communities are marginalized, having institutions to empower them is critical.

Giving Circles are another form of philanthropy that has been practiced in many cultures in differing ways and is becoming more popular. In a Giving Circle, groups of individuals donate their money or time to a pooled fund, deciding together which nonprofit or community project to support. In doing so, the Giving Circle increases their awareness of and engagement in the issues covered by the charity. For example, AMF operates two Giving Circles: one is a family that plays fantasy football together and the winner of the league picks a charity all the participants give to. The other is more complex, with families pitching in to create a professorship in Islamic Studies at a public university near their hometown. 

The secular and religious projects that AMF has funded showcase the valuable impact minority communities can have in philanthropy and demonstrates the need for a community foundation which represents and is reflective of itself. Philanthropy is often translated as ‘the love of mankind,’ and what better way to demonstrate that than to make the world a better place through funding missions with charitable giving.

If you’re interested in engaging the Muslim community in your cause, reach out to American Muslim Fund. If you’re looking for a way to be an ally to the Muslim community, reach out. Be the one to mobilize your network of friends, family, and coworkers and spark curiosity and good in the world. By creating or joining a giving circle or starting a donor advised fund, you can further strategically enhance your philanthropy and make a difference in this world for the better.


Muhi Khwaja co-founded the American Muslim Fund in 2016 where he is the Director of Development & Philanthropy. Muhi has over a decade of experience and in 2016 he became a Certified Fund Raising Executive from the Association of Fundraising Professionals and in 2017 earned a Certificate of Fund Raising Management from Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy where he is also Adjunct Faculty. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Natalie, cat Ninja, and dog Atlas. Muhi enjoys riding his motorcycle, photography, and hiking.

 

 

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